The Imagined Village - Empire and Love

The Imagined Village - Empire and Love

ECC Records ECC002

The Imagined Village was originally a special partially Arts Council funded project masterminded by Afro-Celt Sound System supremo Simon Emmerson who, in tandem with Eliza Carthy, aimed to “re-cast age-old traditions in the shape of the 21 st century” and raise awareness of the exciting nature of English music. The resultant Womad launch appearance, award-winning album and subsequent, increasingly ambitious tour featured a number of guest performers in addition to Simon himself, Eliza and Martin Carthy and Chris Wood, in order to realise the all-important storytelling element and bring these songs alive for the “global village”.

Inevitably, the results – though critically acclaimed – showed a degree of artistic inconsistency, with some treatments more fruitful than others and one or two straying over the edge of acceptable trendiness, but equally inevitably the project led the core participants to a move away from a loose collective and onto a greater consolidation of the live band, together with a desire to make a follow up record. By April 2009 the band lineup had settled at Martin, Eliza, Chris and Simon E with Barney Morse Brown (cello), Andy Gangadeen (drums), Simon Richmond (keyboards), Ali Friend (bass), Sheema Mukherjee (sitar), and Johnny Kalsi (dhol, tabla), and the ensuing six months found this tight ensemble setting up a studio from scratch at Simon E’s place, taking some new material out to summer festivals and then getting down to record Empire & Love.

The basic purpose and mission statement of The Imagined Village remains the same, but the more cohesive band unit is a big bonus, ensuring an as-live consistency that unarguably better matches the concept; it’s clear that all the band members closely share the vision, but it’s also clear that the identity of the key band axis of Martin, Eliza and Chris is crucial. Then again, it’s still bound to be the case that individual tracks that make the biggest impression, and there are some outstanding reinterpretations here.

The album’s opening gambit, Martin’s entirely natural contemporary updating of My Son John (from Napoleonic War to Afghanistan), is painstaking in its execution and enterprising in its arrangement, with a buildup over its six minutes of shocked intensity, from an almost contemplative eastern mystique by way of eerie marching electronic beats to emphasise how “cruel Britannia called for war”, to cold ritual processional: chilling in its resonances, and entirely relevant to The Imagined Village’s central thesis. Similarly, Byker Hill paints a harrowing and distorted picture of today’s post-industrial landscape, out of which arises the spectral chant of Kay Sutcliffe’s Coal Not Dole to haunt us. The enchanting Lark In The Morning, with its wonderful guest vocal contribution from Jackie Oates (here in duet with Eliza) presents an extraordinary soundscape, with fiddle set against swirling twittering electronica and transformations of skylark sounds that (unlike merely pasted samples) for once enhance and define the song in an entirely radical (yet totally natural) way.

A jazzy-piano-led take on Rosebuds In June that ushers in the bucolic Mrs Preston’s Hornpipe with its rave beats, sitar and Martin Green’s accordion making joyful dancing bedfellows. Another standout is Chris’s driving, sitar-soaked new take on his own wyrd-folk epic Sweet Jane, while Chris also brings a slightly dreamy and contemplative quality to The Handweaver And The Factory Maid. The most closely orthodox-sounding track for traditionalists will be Chris’s stark and atmospheric (almost trip-folk) rendition of Scarborough Fair, which has a cool Folk Roots-New Routes vibe, with a brooding backdrop that also quietly dazzles while it supports the ballad: this song is also granted what’s called a “reprise” (tho’ it’s just as long as the original track!) at the end of the disc, complete with a more lush string setting.

The remaining three tracks I find harder to embrace, even within the wider Imagined Village context. The Mermaid can’t seem to quite make its mind up whether to go all out for a freeform beat-drenched Stackridge/East Of Eden fiddle-yomp or provide a cagey, cryptic commentary in jig rhythm. Eliza’s relentlessly quirky take on the obscure Ewan MacColl song Space Girl is well suited, with a cheesy bleeping electronic backing that wears its pop-art on its sleeve for all to hear, but it sticks out like a sore robot-digit here. Finally, there’s Martin’s pricelessly world-weary broken-man deconstruction of Slade’s old stomper Cum On Feel The Noize, which almost defies description – it works unbelievably well on its own terms, but although I’m keen to embrace contrast and diversity I’m not convinced it belongs on this album and in this company; but full marks for trying, and it’s worth hearing… and growing to appreciate. That’s what’s likely to happen with the whole disc, in fact (albeit some tracks are easier to fall head over heels in love with than others). A brave and stimulating release.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 84 of The Living Tradition magazine.